Welcome to West Port Arthur, Texas, Ground Zero in the Fight for Climate Justice
Last year, Bullard and his colleagues at TSU and other historically black colleges and universities—including Beverly Wright at Dillard and the Deep South Center in New Orleans—launched an initiative they call the Climate Education Community University Partnership (CECUP). “We’re linking our schools with these vulnerable communities,” Bullard told me, “trying to get to a population that has historically been left out. We’re going to try to get our people involved.”
When you look at the most vulnerable communities, the “adaptation hot spots,” he added, these are the same communities the schools were founded to serve, and often the very places in which they are located. “We’re not going to wait for somebody to ride in on a white horse and say, ‘We’re going to save these communities!’” Bullard said. “We have to take leadership.”
The initiative invests in a new generation of young scholars and leaders who can draw the connections between greenhouse gas emissions, climate adaptation, and the classic environmental justice issues of pollution, health, and racial and class disparities. “Our folks on the ground can make the connections between these dirty diesel buses, that dirty coal plant, and their kids having to go to the emergency room because of an asthma attack, with no health insurance,” Bullard said. “We see it as human rights issues, environmental issues, health issues, issues of differential power.”
Clearly, anyone like me—with my 40,000-foot view of the climate crisis—would do well to try seeing the concept of climate justice from the ground up, at street level, and through a racial-equity lens. Sitting down with five of Bullard’s graduate students at TSU—joined by two of his colleagues, sociologist and associate dean Glenn Johnson and environmental toxicologist Denae King—I was treated to a generous portion of that ground-up perspective.
For Steven Washington, a 29-year-old native of Houston’s Third Ward and a second-year master’s student in urban planning and public policy, “climate change means asthma; it means health disparities.” Working in Pleasantville, a fence-line community along the Port of Houston, he’s concerned about the city’s notorious air quality, graded F by the American Lung Association, and what it means for a population—especially the elderly—ill equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change. For Jenise Young, a 33-year-old doctoral student in urban planning and environmental policy whose 9-year-old son suffers from severe asthma, climate change is also about “food deserts” like the one surrounding the TSU campus—a social inequity that climate change, as it increases food insecurity, only deepens. (The wealthier University of Houston campus next door inhabits something of an oasis in that desert.) Jamila Gomez, 26, a second-year master’s student in urban planning and environmental policy, points to transportation inequities—the fact that students can’t get to internships in the city, that the elderly can’t get to grocery stores and doctors’ offices, that the bus service takes too long and Third Ward bus stops lack shade on Houston’s sweltering summer days.
I asked the students if they see the growing US climate justice movement—especially students and young people who want to foreground these issues—as a hopeful sign.
“My major concern is that this is a lifelong commitment,” Young replied. “That’s my issue with a lot of the climate justice movement—that it’s the hot topic right now. Prior to that, it was Occupy Wall Street. Prior to that, it was the Obama campaign. But what happens when this is not a fad for you anymore? Because this is not a fad.”
Glenn Johnson, the co-editor of several books, including Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States, chimed in: “It’s a life-and-death situation. There are others who come into the movement, they have a choice—they can go back to their respective communities. But for us, there’s no backing out of talking about the [Houston] ship channel. We are the front line; it’s 24/7. When we wake up, we smell that shit.”
“It’s not one problem,” said Denae King. “It’s multiple problems—poverty, food security, greenhouse emissions, all of these things happening at once. In the mind of a person living in a fence-line community, you have to address all of the problems.” Climate change is urgent, she added, “but still, I have to pay my bills today. I have to provide healthy food today.”
All of which is undeniably true. And it is equally true that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the window in which to take serious action on climate change is closing fast. Unless we act now to begin radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience, our children and future generations face catastrophe. What you hear from climate justice advocates working on the front lines is that, precisely because of this emergency, the way to build a powerful movement is to approach climate change as an intersectional issue.
After I left Houston, I spoke with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. One of the first things she did upon arriving in 2009, Patterson told me, was to write a memo looking at climate justice and the NAACP’s traditional agenda. “It went area by area—health, education, civic engagement, criminal justice, economic development—and showed how environmental and climate justice directly intersect in myriad ways.”
Patterson’s work rests on the understanding that if we’re going to address climate change seriously, then we’re in for a rapid energy transition—one that’s by no means guaranteed to be smooth or economically just. In December, her initiative released its “Just Energy Policies” report, looking state by state at the measures—from local-hire provisions to ones for minority- and women-owned businesses—that can help bring about a just transition to clean energy. At a press conference in Milwaukee the day before, Patterson said, she stood next to NAACP leaders, “and we were talking about starting a training and job-placement program for formerly incarcerated youth and youth at risk around solar installation and energy-efficiency retrofitting.” An energy-efficiency bill was recently introduced in the Missouri Legislature, she noted. “Before, we might not have seen the NAACP getting behind that legislation, because the energy conversation wasn’t seen as part of our civil rights agenda. Now, they’re in with both feet.”
Bob Bullard talks about growing up in the small, deeply segregated town of Elba, Alabama, where he graduated from high school in 1964, the year of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act. He went to Alabama A&M, the historically black university in Huntsville, graduated in 1968, then served in the Marines from 1968 to 1970 (but was mercifully spared Vietnam). Bullard was formed by the civil rights struggle. “I was a sophomore in 1965,” he said. “That was the year of Selma and the bridge. As students, you’re very conscious.” He revered Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and many others. “You identified with a struggle, and you saw it as your struggle.”
Bullard has written about King’s final campaign, when he went to Memphis in 1968 to march in solidarity with the striking sanitation workers. “I tell my students, ‘If you don’t think garbage is an environmental justice issue, you let the garbage workers go on strike.’”
If environmental justice emerged out of the civil rights struggle, then you could almost say that Bullard’s work, and the movement to which he’s dedicated his life, began there in Memphis—picking up where King’s work was cut short.
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